Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

A True History of the Johnstown Flood
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Evolution/Creation and Trust

Cliff Chamberlain and Heather Wood
In 1889, a man-made lake that had been constructed for a resort serving the wealthy steelmakers of Pittsburgh, overflowed its poorly constructed dam. Twenty million tons of water poured down into the narrow valley where was situated Johnstown. Twenty-two hundred people, mostly low-income steelworkers and their families, were killed. Sound like an allegory for Hurricane Katrina? Of course, but author Rebecca Gilman has taken the premise a step farther, making this world premiere play a meditation on the role of theatre in sparking political change and action. She has built her "true story" around a troupe of actors, the fictional Baxter Family. They were once much loved by audiences thanks to the popularity of their late patriarch but now selling tickets more on the strength of their scenery than on the silly melodramas they perform that are falling out of fashion. The Baxters' tradition is being carried on by the father's three adult children, and the troupe has the misfortune of having been booked at the resort just before the flood.

One of the siblings, James (Stephen Louis Grush), has ambitions of writing plays to serve a more serious purpose. After seeing some of the early theater of social realism on a trip to Europe, James wants to write and perform works that will address the inequities of society. So far, his scripts have been reworkings of a German play (Hauptmann's The Weavers) he saw on his trip overseas. At the resort, he sees the sort of class divisions and exploitation of working people he wants to fight through his writing.

Gilman has an intriguing concept, but her tone waffles between campy humor in depicting the troupe's performances of melodrama and stark realism in the scenes brilliantly depicting the horrifying aftermath of the flood. In between, there are expository scenes that suggest the play might be viewed as its own melodrama, complete with a rich and evil villain, a virtuous and innocent heroine and a hapless hero. In fact, the son of a wealthy Pittsburgh family who is courting James's sister Fanny, tells her, "I'm not some sort of villain in one of your plays." To further underscore the point, there are 19th century stage footlights across the apron throughout the play.

There are three melodramas performed by the Baxter troupe within the play and Gilman and director Robert Falls play them for laughs to a degree that fights the scenes in which the flood's aftermath is depicted in truly horrifying terms. The Baxters—poor but well bred and typically well-dressed—feel humiliated by the state of misery in which the disaster places them. Cliff Chamberlain as older brother Richard and Heather Wood as Fanny stunningly show the shame the characters feel on becoming filthy, smelly, starving and sick. To show the physical disaster, Walt Spangler's set fills the stage with debris and even a life-size upended rail car. The grey and misty atmosphere created by lighting designer James F. Ingalls together with Richard Woodbury's sound effects of flies buzzing around the dead bodies strewn on stage create complete an environment of utter despair. This tension is broken by a scene in which we see how Richard Baxter has turned the story of the flood into a silly melodrama that gets way too many laughs to be considered comic relief, particularly as it precedes a final scene that seems like an American tragedy as written by Clifford Odets.

Gilman and Falls would do better to downplay their parody of melodrama. The play's second scene is a long—a "what were they thinking" long—melodrama that feels like it runs 15 minutes. It generates laughs but is much more than needed to advance the plot or establish the theme. What makes it worse is that the opening scene—in which the three Baxters are lounging by the resort's lake—insufficiently establishes the situation. As the first play within the play unfolds in scene two, it's initially hard to make the connection that the actors are actually the same characters from scene one, as Richard is performing in drag while Fanny and James are less recognizable in their costumes. We're nearly a half-hour into the play before we can be fairly certain of the premise and know who the characters are.

Gilman gives the play an element of sexual politics as well. Fanny is initially courted by Walter Lippincott (Lucas Hall), but he ultimately treats her badly and becomes ashamed of her upon seeing her suffering after the flood. Gilman, admirably, wants to make Walter a complex and nuanced character, flawed but with a social conscience—a humanitarian but still looking for ways to make a buck when he can. The character is simply confusing as written now, however. There's no thread tying these elements of his personality together.

It all seems that there are just too many ideas here, and in the end not much new insight provided into any of them. Still, the production is worthwhile for its depiction of the disaster's devastation, the consistently fine acting (including supporting turns by Janet Ulrich Brooks, Sarah Charipar, Cedric Mays and Randall Newsome) and the stunning physical production. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes capture a range from upper class elegance through rags and tatters. The script is very much a first draft. It needs a lot of editing and commitment to a more focused theme to be up to the levels of the design. As it stands right now, like the productions of the Baxter family, the visual design is the main attraction.

A True History of the Johnstown Flood plays through April 18, 2010, in the Albert Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets are available at the box office and online at

Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson